Majoring in the Minors

organizationofyearThe Indians started off their season with a win last night in Toronto. We know all about the new acquisitions and how the team was built. We also understand how the Clippers, Aeros and Lake County Captains fill out their rosters. But what about an independent league team like the Lake Erie Crushers?

The Crushers finished the 2012 season on September 2nd with a 6-2 loss to the Southern Illinois Miners. They were 2.5 games out of a playoff spot, with a 53-42 record. It was a winning season for the Crushers, but not a championship one. The Crushers won the Frontier League title their first year in the league, but haven’t repeated that success since 2009.

As players cleaned out their lockers, many changes were ahead for the organization.

In a league designed for younger players, roster turnover isn’t just expected–it’s mandated. Eleven of the players on the active roster (teams may carry between 22-24) must be what the league considers “rookies”. Those players are classified as R1 players, meaning they are making their pro debut in the current season, or R2 players which were R1’s the year before. Basically, half your team needs to be in their first or second year of pro ball.

But there is more.

Of the up to thirteen remaining players, none of them can be older than twenty-seven years old as of January 1st. Well, except for one. Each team is allowed one “veteran player” who must have 100 Frontier League games under their belt prior to the season.

Did you follow that? The goal of the league is to give players who were passed up in the draft a chance to show their talent in hopes of someday getting a chance to play affiliated ball. That’s why they have all the restrictions.

So as the season came to a close, the Crushers had some decisions to make. Which players would be invited back for the 2013 season?

A few were easy. Andrew Davis would be the designated veteran. Davis has been with the team since its inception. He was there when they won the title in 2009. He led the team in home runs last season, and is tops all time for the organization.

Davis was a draft pick of the San Francisco Giants  in 2007 out of Kent State. He played two seasons in the Giants farm system and was released. He’s been with the Crushers ever since, and will be again this year.

RHP Trevor Longfellow had the second most wins in the league and a 3.35 ERA. He’ll be back. So will fellow pitchers Brad Duffy, Matt Smith and Mickey Janis. A dozen players got the good news that they will be back for 2013.

And then the biggest change occurred.

Manager John Massarelli was let go. The only manager in team history was replaced on December 19th by Jeff Isom.

Isom is no stranger to the Frontier League. He spent the first five years of his managerial career in the young Frontier League. He managed the Canton Crocodiles who played their home games at Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton. Former Indian Super Joe Charboneau was his hitting coach. He spent the last six seasons managing in the Brewers minor league system.

One of the things Isom likes about the Frontier League is the control he has over the roster. But with the late addition, he didn’t have a say in which players were kept from the ’12 team.

So how do you fill out the rest of the roster? Where do these players come from?

The answer according to Isom is “any way I can.”

There is no scouting department. No player personnel department. No general manager.

“That’s me” Says Isom. “And that’s not unusual with independent baseball.”

With Isom’s 13 years of managerial experience, and 7 seasons pitching in the minors (with a respectable 28-28 record) he has been around and made some contacts.

He relies on coaching colleagues, as well as other players that he knows and trusts. One of the pitchers- Dale Dickerson, was actually recommended by teammate Alex Kaminsky. After calling some scouts, Isom decided to give Dickerson a shot at making the team this season.

The hardest part might be calling a player he’s never talked to before and asking them if they’d like to come play ball for $600 a month. “If you’re a college player and you didn’t get the opportunity to get drafted though, and you want to play pro ball- you’re jumping at the chance to play for $600.”

For the record, $600 is the league minimum. The maximum is $2,500 a month. Those contracts are generally reserved for that one veteran player. But keep in mind the entire team has to come in at $75,000 for the season. If you want to keep 24 players on your roster, that means an average player salary of $700 a month. Handing out too much per player could mean fewer spots on the roster.

So Isom went about the task of filling out the Crushers’ roster. In the Frontier League, that means finding the right rookie players.

“Rookies are key in this league. If you are going to have success, you have to have good rookies.”

Also key is knowing the loopholes. If a player is under 21 years old, no matter how much experience he has in pro ball he is considered at least an R2 player. Which was good news for Isom and catcher David Roney. Roney has spent the last three seasons playing under Isom in the Brewers organization. The youngster still counts as a rookie R2 player for the Crushers.

“You could also go with a guy who is 30 years old, but if he has military experience for the last seven years, he could still be a rookie.”

So what does Isom look for in a player, besides raw talent?

“There are two different players in this league, college players that didn’t get drafted and are looking for the first opportunity to play professional baseball and showcase their talent. Then you have other guys that were in affiliated baseball and got released, and are trying to get seen again to get signed.”

“I always tell my players if you’re not here to get signed with a major league club, I don’t want you. I want guys that have the desire to move on. I don’t want guys that are complacent, that this is just a summer job.”

If a player has talent and fits that description, they have a shot in the Frontier League.

There’s the outfielder from McNeese State University. A pitcher from California Baptist University. The utility player from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. All of them are Lake Erie Crushers. Along with former Akron Aero Alex Kaminsky.

Kaminsky played last season for the Gateway Grizzlies, another Frontier League team. The Fostoria, Ohio native wanted to play for the Crushers, and so the team made the trade. Kaminisky had a very successful year for the Grizzlies. He went 10-5 with a 3.74 ERA and led the team in strikeouts by a mile. With his local connections, it just made sense for the Crushers to go after Kaminsky.

The Crushers roster today sits at 30 players. That means at least 6 will not make the club after the two week spring training in May. Versatility may be the difference between making the team and not.

Isom wouldn’t have it any other way.

“That’s what I enjoy about it. Putting the whole team together. It’s almost like glorified fantasy baseball. You go out and find your players, trying to make everything work within that salary cap, and make the best team possible. But this is very much real life.”

When the general manager and the head scout and on-field manager is the same person, there is nowhere to hide. It isn’t just a failure because Isom signed the player, he also coached him. “I’m in charge of the roster. If the team sucks, it’s all my fault. I take the blame.”

“If you’re in affiliated baseball and your team is no good, you can say the scouts aren’t doing their job, or the parent club took my best players, but here it’s all on me.”

It’s a good thing for the Crushers and their fans that Isom seems to thrive in this kind of situation. His record in the independent leagues is 337-291, in affiliated baseball his managerial record is 327-379. He’ll have the team ready to play May 17th.

No matter who ends up on the final roster.

  • JNeids

    Nice article, Rick. I have a buddy who used to work at the stadium so I went out for a game once. It was a good time, but you gotta know what you’re in for coming in.

    Are there any major success stories from the Independent League? I’m sure there are players whose dreams get realized, but any idea if a superstar has ever gone through the league? Or Avon, specifically?

  • Thanks JNeids. There have been Frontier league players make it to the bigs. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember any of their names. Jeff mentioned a couple when we sat down and talked.

  • mgbode

    I didn’t realize the Independent League was setup that way. I love it. If nothing else, it allows these guys to have a couple of years to humble themselves to the fact that they aren’t going to get to play baseball the rest of their lives while figuring out what/how to do something else (or get involved in a different aspect of baseball other than playing).

    $600/month is crazy though. Hopefully, the team has some deals setup with local apartments or something to help the players afford to rent something.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Nice love the minor leagues too!

  • Boopis

    The players stay with host families in the area.

  • Jeff was nice enough to send this link along for you JNeids. The biggest name I see is Brendan Donnelly of the Angels.

  • They have host families just like affiliated clubs. Wouldn’t be possible without them.

  • JNeids

    Thanks Rick and Jeff!

  • mgbode

    thanks to you and Rick for the response. i didn’t realize that still went on these days.

  • geomac1310

    This was a really cool article. I didn’t know the frontier league was set up lime that.

  • Rick, is this the same league that the Florence Freedom (Kentucky) plays in? I don’t recall this team, but I only know a few of the teams they play against.